Acute lymphocytic leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Leukemia affects the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
In a healthy individual the bone marrow makes immature cells (stem cells) that become mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell can become a myeloid stem cell or lymphoid stem cell. A myeloid stem cell can become a red blood cell that helps carry oxygen to all the organs and tissues of the body, a platelet that helps to form blood clots to stop bleeding, and a white blood cell that helps fight infection.
A lymphoid stem cell becomes one of three types of lymphocytes (type of white blood cell):
- B lymphocyte that help to make antibodies to fight infection
- T lymphocytes that help B lymphocytes make the antibodies that help fight infection
- Natural Killer cells that attack cancer cells and viruses
With acute lymphocytic leukemia too many of the stem cells become lymphoblasts (B lymphoblasts or T lymphoblasts). These lymphoblasts are mutated and do not function normally and cannot fight infection well. These cells are called leukemia cells. As the number of leukemia cells increase in the bone marrow and blood there is less room for white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets.
How is it treated?
Medications that are used to help kill cancer cells. Multiple types of chemotherapy medications are used in the treatment of acute lymphocytic leukemia. Chemotherapy is given in a specific sequenced combination. Chemotherapy is given IV, orally and through
the spinal fluid. The health care team will explain in detail the treatment plan and possible side effects of the chemotherapy.
A special type of X-ray treatment that kills or damages cancer cells. If radiation treatment is necessary the radiation therapy doctor will explain how the radiation is given, possible side effects and how long the radiation treatments will last.